Subscription vs. piecemeal pricing of music

This week I actually suggested to someone that they avoid an iPod and instead buy something from Creative or iRiver. I know, I was shocked to hear myself say “well if you want unlimited music, no version of an iPod will work with that.”

Here’s the weird part — at first I only suggested avoiding the iPod because they wanted to use Rhapsody, but the more I think about it, choosing to go with an unlimited music service seems like a smarter choice. I was glad to see Chris Anderson, editor of WIRED, talk about this last week as well.

For me and my maladjusted alpha geek friends, the idea of nearly unlimited music for the iPod is totally doable in the age of bittorrent, mp3 blogs, mp3 groups on usenet, and iTunes hacks like Ourtunes. We get almost all the music we want for free, and buy a few on the iTunes Music Store (and we go to rock shows and buy shirts and find other ways to repay the band) when we’re not spending time ripping our large CD collections to high bitrate mp3 and swapping that with each other.

But for regular people that just use the internet for web information and email, locating tons of free music is a difficult task. When Yahoo or Napster or Rhapsody offers 1+ million songs for ~$10 a month, the iPod and iTunes Music Store starts to look like a ripoff in the long run.

This could be the undoing of Apple’s cornering of the mp3 player market — for a long time people have advocated a compulsory music license, where you pay $50 a year and you get all the music you want for free. The thinking behind it is that $50 x millions of broadband subscribers = more money than the music industry gets in album sales. And that’s basically what these unlimited music services offer. Sure, you’re merely “leasing” music because when you stop your membership, the music disappears, but all-you-can-download is what napster used to be back in the day, only this time it’s crippled with DRM and there’s a monthly fee. But it’s still all the music you want, all the time, like napster used to be.

It seems like the music labels are always at war with Apple over pricing and I think I can see why. They prefer the subscription model where no one “owns” anything and files only work as long as you pay into it. Apple insists on letting people download copies (crippled with DRM yes, but you still get to keep the files and play them long after you pay for them) but you have to buy them ala carte, which can quickly get expensive for any music fan. And I think I see why the music industry wants to move to a subscription model — selling albums or song downloads requires constantly coming up with new music to keep sales up. Sales are unpredictable without a constant stream of new stuff to buy, but if you get every listener on a subscription plan, that’s money in the bank you can count on every month, regardless of whether or not Sting or Coldplay or 50 Cent ever do another album. Heck, most subscribers would still be paying ten bucks a month to hear old Steve Miller band tracks, as the back catalog would be the main draw in a subscription-based music business instead of the newest stuff.

Maybe I’m finally realizing that if I had to legitimately pay piecemeal for all the mp3s I’ve ever owned, I’d be spending thousands of dollars a year instead of the couple hundred I spend at the iTMS. Having unlimited downloads of over a million songs starts to sound pretty attractive at only ten bucks a month.

(totally weird sidenote: in my recollection, the big proponents of compulsory music licenses come mostly from the copyfight world but everyone I know from there uses an iPod)

MLP: music

Doug egged me into this music meme that is spreading. I saw it first yesterday and thought it was kind of dumb, but in the past 24 hours I’ve found dozens more from folks I read and admire, and I’ve changed my tune — it’s turned out to be kind of cool. So here goes:

Total volume of music on my computer:
11.1Gb (2119 songs). It’s mostly limited by my 40Gb hard drive on my powerbook. I regularly delete downloaded mp3s I don’t like or don’t listen to much anymore. About once a month I probably prune a few hundred songs, which get replaced as I collect more. My music library size might also be an artifact of having a 10Gb iPod for two years. Even though my current one is 20Gb, I always seem to hover between 9 and 11Gb in music.

The last CD I bought:
I don’t buy CDs much anymore, opting for the iTMS or finding them online, but I actually bought The Dan Band off an ad on BoingBoing because I’m a sucker for silly covers and I loved the Total Eclipse bit that showed up in Old School. I read BoingBoing through a browser instead of RSS and I must admit I click on almost all their ads and this CD wasn’t the first thing I’ve bought via them. Some people say BoingBoing looks like the side of a NASCAR but I find the ads useful.

Song playing right now:
I find and play a lot of random stuff and right now I am enjoying the Spamalot broadway recording. I wish I were in NYC and could see it live.

Five songs I listen to a lot, or that mean a lot to me:
The Gold Finch and Red Oak Tree by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists (I have no idea what this song means but it sounds very pretty and I never tire of it)

Scared Straight by The Long Winters (the live KEXP version is my fave)

Frug by Rilo Kiley (off their first EP not on iTMS, but all their stuff is great)

Staten Island Ferry by Clyde Federal (I love unknown bands I find online that are great and deserve a bigger following)

Your Own Dot Org by Shannon Campbell (rediscovered this recently and fell in love with it all over again, everything about this is perfect)

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton:
Kathryn Yu
Andy Baio
Lia Bulaong
Leonard Lin
Luke Seeman

Like a random royale with cheese

I have an aux input on my car stereo (thanks to Honda for putting one in at the factory — I love my Element) so I’ve been using an iPod in it since I drove it off the dealer’s lot. I noticed recently however, I prefer using my iPod shuffle over my 20Gb iPod.

I know it’s less music and even less information about that music, but the shuffle mode beats the standard iPod shuffle mode. When I autofill my shuffle randomly from iTunes, I have it pick high rated songs more often, so when it plays, it’s not a completely random sampling of my gigs of music like the full sized iPod, it’s actually random music plus a bunch of songs I love. This means when I’m driving around 1 in every 4 songs or so are my absolute favorites (I’m miserly with my 5-star ratings) and makes for enjoyable driving. Now I just use the full sized iPod for long trips when I want to go from audiobooks to music or pick specific new albums, otherwise it’s all shuffle all the time.

While I’m talking about my shuffle and iPod use, I heartily recommend Matt Webb’s thoughts on his shuffle. Like him, I too wish the “next” button was the largest one on the device and I also feel much of the attraction of the blind shuffle playback is in the rediscovery of your own music.

Chaos with a side of order

Today I finally figured out how to use a shuffle in both predictable and unpredictable ways. A couple weeks ago I took a flight and I wanted to listen to 10 tracks that made up a short audiobook, but then load up the rest of my shuffle with 150 songs to listen to during other parts of the trip. The problem was, I couldn’t figure out how to load certain tracks at the beginning, and play just those in order, while still being able to switch to random and fast forwarding through the occasional audiobook track amid the music mix. It’s not that hard to accomplish, but there are a few sticking points I figured I’d share.

– Create a new playlist with your audiobook tracks, then add a bunch of songs and albums you want to hear to fill out the remainder of your shuffle.

– Fill your shuffle from that playlist. You must order the songs so that the audiobook tracks are first in the list. If you can’t get this sort by clicking on any column headers, highlight the first column with numbers and drag the tracks one by one into the first slots in the list — that’s the only way to arbitrarily order tracks in iTunes. This is one “feature” I didn’t learn until recently and seems to be lacking from playlists (even though every other software mp3 player lets you arbitrarily reorder tracks in playlists). It might be a royal pain to do this one by one, through hundreds of tracks. Be sure to update when you’ve got the order done before removing the shuffle.

– Now, if you want to jam to music, go to shuffle mode and enjoy. When you want to listen to your audiobook, switch to ordered mode (non-shuffle, first click on the switch) and hit the play button three times to go to the start of the playlist.

Sometimes you want order and chaos in the same package and that’s how to do it. Even when I don’t have an audio book on my shuffle, I like to find my favorite song of the moment and keep it as the first track, so at any point I can switch to ordered mode, hit play three times, then switch back to shuffle and hear it.

This week’s best thing ever

Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol winner, has a breakout hit called “Since U Been Gone” that you’ve probably heard. It’s totally addictive and I think may just be this year’s Hey Ya. Even my indie rock friends all adore the track (even Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing fame puts it in his top three favorites).

So when word got out that indie rock legend Ted Leo covered it, we searched and searched and a bounty was even offered. Eventually, it was found, at UGO.com. Worlds colliding!

I ripped the audio from the streaming video file on their site and here’s the song: Ted Leo doing a cover of “Since U Been Gone” (192kbps, MP3)

It was worth the search and the wait.

Was the iPod even in Cambodia during xmas?

I can’t help but notice that Napster’s iPod attack ads bear an uncanny resemblance to political attack ads. The Napster ads don’t tell you that their music files are loaded with DRM that won’t let you really “own” the songs at all and they ignore that many folks rip their CD collection to their iPod for free.

They just shout from the highest mountaintops how their service is amazingly better (omitting all the obvious drawbacks) and the opponent device is the worst decision you could ever make. And like political opponents that have to face attack ads, if Apple does nothing, the Swift Napster Vets might actually gain traction and marketshare from the iPod. If Apple does come out with a response, they have to sink down to Napster’s level and it doesn’t jibe with ther type of advertising at all.

Hopefully all the folks that own iPods can educate their friends as to why the Napster ads are complete garbage and why it’s an inferior format and device choice. But I have a strong feeling that like political ads, not everyone does their homework and looks for background on the merits and drawbacks of both choices, instead accepting ads on their face value.

I’m an iPod owner and I approve this message.